One letter switch – language and graphic design, a CLIL (content and language) assignment

Studying a little graphic design is part of the broad art and culture course that I teach my classes of fifteen and sixteen year olds. Their world is full of this type of visual material in the form of websites, magazines, posters, packaging and video.  However it never fails to surprise me just how little they have actually stopped to think about it and how good design can influence them.

With this in mind I have constructed a series of lessons that explore various forms of graphic design it features interviews with designers and analysis of their work. I like to support this sort of theoretical work with a practical assignment that encourages the pupils to try and get to grips with design issues themselves. It’s a kind of ‘doing is the best form of learning’ approach, a standpoint I am definitely a supporter of.

The assignment

I wanted to set the pupils the task of designing a movie poster. It’s an area of graphic design that they are all familiar with and one that by and large has a number of design elements that come back again and again, ones that they could also be applied in their design work.

The image part of the poster I decided to turn into a small photographic assignment. All photographic imagery had to be made by the pupils themselves, nothing was to be sourced from the Internet.

The language challenge

However before any photography or design work could be started the language element was going to be crucial in determining the direction that the final design would take. The rule I imposed for the fictitious film that they were to design a poster for was simple; they had to take the title of an existing film and then create a new, and completely different direction for it by switching just one letter in the title for a different letter. No other variations were allowed, it was just one for one.

brotherbearI gave a couple of examples to get the ball rolling a little, Pirates of the Caribbean  could become Pilates of the Caribbean or Saving Private Ryan could become Raving Private Ryan. One letter in each case, resulting in film titles that head off in completely new directions and would produce very different posters.

This sounds too simple to be much of a language challenge, but when I watched the class engage with the challenge it soon became clear that it offered more than I expected. The pupils searched through countless film titles on their phones seeking out word and letter switches that could work. It almost reminded me of a classroom of pupils trying to puzzle out crosswords as they juggled with letter and word combinations.

For most there seemed to be two pressing criteria that developed.  Firstly and perhaps most obviously, that the new title had to produce an idea that could also result in a photographic image that they felt that they could actually make, but also the presence of humour seemed important.

I realize now that in terms of creativity I should have shown them one of my favourite, crazy film related websites, Cardboard Box Office. It doesn’t exactly play along the same language related lines, but it is not far off.  In terms of taking a film related image and theme and twisting it in a wonderfully creative way there are few sites to beat it!  I think it would have almost certainly lead to greater creativity in arranging the photographic material. A note to self……next year make use of the cardboard box office!!

setpostersOn the level of extensive content and language integration (CLIL) this is a fairly modest language assignment. But it was a language element that was certainly enjoyed by the pupils. It engaged them and caused a form of creative play that was a positive diversion from the more standard report writing that they are more often involved with.

I’ll be posting a second assignment that continues, in a slightly more complex way , in this direction in a week or two, follow the blog if you’d like to hear about it.

Homophones CLIL Art and English assignment

Fed up with your pupils muddling up words that sound the same, but are spelt differently and have different meanings?  These words are called homophones and are often an area of confusion, especially when starting to learn a language.

Technically the definition is:

Homophones are words which have the same pronunciation, but different spellings and meanings.

Some examples:


To help clear up some of this confusion why not get the art department involved in a little design work?


Pictograms that illustrate the differences in homophones words

Pictograms are something that we are all so familiar with in our daily lives. They are visual shortcuts in information delivery.  Images that are designed to inform and instruct in a rapid and clear way that is not dependent on language, or at least not conventional language. Pictograms rely instead on a visual language. Think of all those symbols you see around airports directing us to various facilities, or the buttons on your tablet for different apps or within the app or program on your computer helping you to use it without becoming involved with written text.

A well designed pictogram should require little explanation!

When it comes to designing the pictogram it should meet the following criteria:

  • Be clear and not overly complex
  • Be sharp and graphic in its appearance so that it is easily viewed from a distance
  • Have a boldness that allows it to be reproduced on various scales without losing quality

Sets of pictograms also have a ‘house style’, they look like they belong together even though they may be illustrating quite diverse things.


Design pairs of pictograms that illustrate clearly the differences between homophones. This could be carried out by hand with ink or paint on a piece of paper, or alternatively be set as a simple computer based design assignment.

Text would not normally be part of a pictogram, but in this case it is also important to include the pair of words underneath the design so that viewers can see and appreciate the subtle or not so subtle differences between the homophones.

Remember, each pair of pictograms should in terms of drawing and style look like they do belong together!

The resulting artworks could subsequently be reproduced and make excellent decoration for the language classrooms at school.

But I already know what I want to make……


As a footnote or extension to my previous post concerning creativity within a limited range of possibilities another art room assignment comes to mind and one that touches on many other subject areas within a school. This being a poster design assignment.
The presentation of information has changed a lot in recent years, particularly in the increasingly hot area of info-graphics. The prevalence of digital technology within the school setting offers the possibility of teenagers producing work of near professional quality. Yet when the pupil sits down at the computer and opens up the design software they are so often overwhelmed by the choice, quite simply almost anything is possible. So many interesting effects and layouts are possible.
The idea that it might actually be a good idea to pick up a pencil first and produce a few thumbnail design layouts of extreme simplicity is important but at the same time, in the eyes of many pupils, an unnecessary waste of time, when they either “know what they want to do” or simply want to sit do at the computer an start to fiddle around the possibilities.
I have found that a more “dirty fingers” approach can work well in establishing an initial design idea. Giving the pupils the following for instance:
A white A4 sheet
An A5 sheet of coloured paper
A piece of imagery printed out in two different sizes
A title text printed out in two sizes
A couple of blocks of text simply cut out of a newspaper or magazine
The assignment is, within these extremely limited means to produce an interesting and dynamic layout design on the A4 sheet.
Allow a whole class to try this assignment it can be surprising what they come up with. Lay all the designs out on a table at the end of the session and the pupils will see for themselves just how creative the solutions can be, particularly with the possibilities offered by a simple sheet of coloured paper. These rough collages can of course then become the springboard for the digital work that may come later.
This is another simple but clear example of an assignment framed up with quite tight restrictions that can successly encourage the creativity of pupils or students in a wide range of age groups.